Follow by Email

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Next year:  August 29-30, 2015
Middlemarch by George Eliot

This Year:  September 13-14, 2014
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

by Louise DiMattio and Jim Hall

We had great weather for the weekend to accompany the great discussions of a long, difficult novel that was very rewarding in the end. Almost uniformly, everyone wrote that it was an awful novel to read (1 on a scale of 1-5) but a 5 to discuss. That was pretty much unanimous. 

The story takes place in Austria just prior to the outbreak of World War I and concerns some upper middle class people who attempt to save Austrian “culture” and ensure peace into the future, of course this helps set the stage for the War.  "If only we didn’t have to put up with those damned Prussians."  Ulrich, the main character, to me is a narcissist who cannot come to terms with himself or anyone else for that matter, remaining detached, uninvolved on any meaningful level.  The novel is chock full of philosophical and psychological satire while making innumerable observations about public and personal relationships that seem somehow familiar. 

“In a community coursed through by energies every road leads to a worthwhile goal, provided one doesn’t hesitate or reflect too long.  Targets are short-term, but since life is short too, results are maximized, which is all people need to be happy, because the soul is formed by what you accomplish, whereas what you desire without achieving it merely warps the soul.  Happiness depends very little on what we want, but only on achieving whatever it is.  Besides, zoology teaches that a number of flawed individuals can often add up to a brilliant social unit.”  P.  27

“No one knew exactly what was in the making, nobody could have said whether it was to be a new art, a new humanity, a new morality, or perhaps a shuffling of society.  So everyone said what he pleased about it.  But everywhere people were suddenly standing up to struggle against the old order.  Everywhere the right man suddenly appeared in the right place and --- this is so important! --- enterprising men of action joined forces with enterprising men of intellect.  Talents of a kind that had previously been stifled or had never taken part in public life suddenly came to the fore.  They were as different from each other as could be, and could not have been more contradictory in their aims.”  P. 53

Ulrich speaking on his scheme for living the history of ideas instead of the history of the world:  ". . . People make love because there is love to be made, and they do it in the prevailing mode; people are proud as the Noble Savage, or as a Spaniard, a virgin, or a lion; in ninety out of a hundred cases even murder is committed only because it is perceived as tragic or grandiose.  Apart from the truly notable exceptions, the successful political molders of the world in particular have a lot in common with the hacks who write for the commercial theater; the lively scenes they create bore us by their lack of ideas and novelty, but by the same token they lull us into that sleepy state of lowered resistance in which we acquiesce in everything put before us.  Seen in this light, history arises out of routine ideas, out of indifference to ideas, so that reality comes primarily of nothing being done for ideas.  This might be briefly summed up, he claimed, by saying that we care too little about what is happening and too much about to whom, when, and where it is happening, so that it is not the essence of what happens that matters to us but only the plot; not the opening up of some new experience of life but only the pattern of what we already know, corresponding precisely to the difference between good plays and merely successful plays. . . ."  P. 395

After our second discussion on Saturday we enjoyed a lecture by Sean Forester, an artist who comes from Sonoma County but has lived and worked in Florence for many years and now runs the Golden Gate Atelier in San Francisco. He attended St. John’s, a GB college in Annapolis, Maryland and is a frequent speaker and Great Books Discussion Leader for Classical Pursuits. He spoke to the group on Saturday afternoon about artists working in Vienna at the same time that the novel takes place.

Specifically, he spoke about and showed slides of the work of Gustav Klimt. He also showed a very different side of life at the time in rapidly industrializing Europe through the etchings and drawings of Kathe Kollwitz. Life in the mines and the shipyards was very different from the palaces of the Parallel Campaign in Musil’s novel, that's for sure!  It was an excellent presentation.

After dinner, we enjoyed a talk by Philip Beard, Professor Emeritus at Sonoma State University in German Studies, Global Studies, Holocaust Studies and War and Peace Studies.  The subject of his PhD. thesis was Musil’s novel A Man Without Qualities.  He offered some valuable insights, clearing up some factual questions and some  possible interpretations of the reading and read some snippets from the second volume of the work which were interesting or disturbing depending on your point of view.  It was an excellent presentation from a very knowledgeable speaker.

On the weekend:

Sheri Kinsvater wrote on Facebook today that the weekend flew by and was a great event. She said that Great Bookies know much better how to organize an event than Diotima!  (D. is a not so competent character in the novel.)

Paula Weinberger said: we've done it again...a great weekend!

This Long Novel Weekend was an outstanding success.  Many thanks and kudos go to our discussion leaders:  Kay White, Paula Weinberger, Claudia O"Callaghan, Rob Calvert, Jean Circiello, and Wallis Leslie.

They all got rave reviews.

1 comment:

  1. That Bay Area literature lovers find The Man Without Qualities “an awful novel to read” rather than filling them with awe at one of the most brilliantly written, ironic and artful novels ever written is a sad but ironic indication of the low state of culture in the Bay Area. There is a bit of justification for the low opinion the readers had of the novel’s readability in that the Burton Pike translation they read is of lower quality than the earlier translation.